By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 will be decided by Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and expectations are high that positions in this championship foursome are still very much up for grabs.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano is the only driver locked-in to a position in the Championship 4 with his victory at Kansas two weeks ago. Regular season champion Kevin Harvick leads the points standings by 15 points over Denny Hamlin – and 17 points over Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski.
It will be up to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott (both -42 points from Keselowski), Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. (-53) and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch (-98) to shake up the current Playoff picture with the ultimate clutch victory on Sunday.
No matter where he may be ranked in the points standings, Truex is the obvious race favorite. The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion has won the last two races on the historic half-miler. His 2019 Playoff win at Martinsville was a masterly performance – leading 464 of the 500 laps in his No. 19 JGR Toyota. And Truex’s victory there this Spring was also impressive. He crossed the finish line a commanding 4.705-seconds ahead of runner-up Ryan Blaney.
Truex has five top-five finishes in the last six Martinsville races. The last driver to win back-to-back races before Truex was Jimmie Johnson in 2012-13. Seven times a driver has won three Martinsville races in a row – most recently, current competitors Denny Hamlin (2009-10) and Johnson (2006-07).
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have won the last three penultimate races in the championship schedule – the next to last race of the season.
“It’s high,” Truex said of his confidence level heading to Martinsville. “I’m excited about going to Martinsville. We know we can win there and obviously we’ve shown that in the past.
“It’s a new race and a new week. We have to figure out how to be better than we’ve been there before because I feel like everybody else will get better too. I’m looking forward to it and I’m excited for the opportunity to get to do to this. Hopefully we can go there and do what we have to do to put ourselves in another championship race.”
It won’t be easy. Motivation is in no short supply – among the eight drivers vying for a championship berth or among the rest of the field with a wide assortment of personal storylines. Defending series champion Kyle Busch has been eliminated from playoff contention, but his victory at Texas last week extended his personal win streak to 16 seasons. And seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t in the Playoff hunt at this point, but he is certainly focused on ending his Hall of Fame career with one more race trophy celebration.
As for the Playoff drivers, Truex’s teammate Hamlin is the odds-on favorite statistically at Martinsville. His five wins at the track are most among the championship-eligible drivers. He has 21 top-10 finishes in 29 starts at the tight half-miler with top five efforts in three of the last four races. His last Martinsville victory, however, was in 2015 – 11 races ago.
Keselowski and Kurt Busch are the only other multi-time Martinsville winners with a pair of trophies each. Keselowski, who has top-10 finishes in the last four races coming to Martinsville and has finished top-five in the last four races there, including a win in 2019.
Busch, who has alternated between top-10 runs and DNFs in the last four Playoff races, definitely finds himself in a must-win position on Sunday. His two Martinsville wins are more than a decade apart (2002 and 2014) but he has three top-10 finishes in his last four races at the track.
Teammates Bowman and Elliott are also in a must-win scenario. Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet has top-10 finishes in the three Playoff races coming to Martinsville, but has only a pair of top-10 finishes at the track in nine previous races. He was sixth in the Spring but 30th in the 2019 Playoff race.
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, was fifth in the Spring race at Martinsville and his career-best showing at the track is runner-up in the 2019 Spring race. His Playoff run has been inconsistent. He won at the Charlotte ROVAL and has five top-10 efforts, but also three finishes of 20th or worse – including a 20th place last week at Texas.
Both have to be encouraged by Hendrick Motorsports Martinsville track record. The team’s 24 victories is most among the competition and it scored a top-10 sweep of all four entries in the Spring race.
“For us, we need to go win,” Elliott said. “That’s really the bottom line. I am not even going to look at points because, in my opinion, it really just doesn’t matter. If you can’t win races and win them consistently in the Series you aren’t going to win a championship, anyway.”
NASCAR Cup Series — Xfinity 500
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Sunday, November 1
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, 1:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 263 miles (500 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 130), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 260), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 500)